Rodrigo Duterte’s trip to Beijing in October marked the first visit of a Filipino president to China since 2011. During his tour, Duterte shocked the world by announcing that his country would “separate” from its long-time ally, the United States, and “realign” with China. Even before this pronouncement, the Filipino president’s brutal drug war, badmouthing of U.S. President Barack Obama, and general hostility toward the United States had made many in Washington—and elsewhere—view him as a headache.
Although Duterte’s erratic, populist persona has unnerved leaders on both sides of the Pacific, he is not the crackpot he is sometimes made to seem. Rather, when it comes to foreign policy, he is a rational statesman with a keen sense of his country’s interests. Duterte’s move toward China is a calculated risk, and he is more interested in securing economic gains for the Philippines than in undermining the United States’ Asian security network, despite his harsh rhetoric against the U.S. military. The incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, therefore, stands to gain more from fostering a good relationship with Duterte than from sabotaging his attempts to seek closer ties with China.
Duterte’s decisions make the most sense within the broader context of Southeast Asia, where foreign policy is a small countries’ survival game. The region’s states formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967 as an anticommunist coalition, and since the end of the Cold War ASEAN has expanded into a regional bloc. But regardless of their immediate goals, ASEAN members have routinely searched for ways to strengthen their leverage against more powerful states. Today, with Southeast Asia once again a chessboard for the world’s great powers, ASEAN relies on U.S. military supremacy to balance against China and maintain regional stability. In recent decades, this balancing strategy has been the pillar of the Philippines’ foreign policy.